Saturday, August 2, 2008

Go SpaceX!

This is a big week for the newspace company SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies). Today they announced the first nine-engine test firing of their new Falcon 9 booster. A video of the test firing is posted on their website.

Even more significant, perhaps, is the opening of the launch window for Flight 3 of their smaller Falcon 1 rocket. (The launch of Flight 2 is pictured at right.) Sometime between now and August 5 I'm hoping to watch a live webcast of their first successful launch into orbit. The first test launch of the Falcon 1 ended after 30 seconds of flight when a fire caused the first stage engine to fail. The second flight nearly made orbit, but sloshing fuel in the second stage tanks caused a premature engine cut-off. Flight 3 is not billed as a test flight, but an operational flight. They are launching an experimental DOD payload, along with two smaller payloads for NASA and one for the Malaysian space agency. I think they have an excellent chance for success, based on the progress made in the past two launches. I can't wait!

SpaceX is a new company founded by Internet mogul Elon Musk with the money he made from selling PayPal. It is one of a new breed of space enterprises often referred to as "newspace". These new companies, mostly self-funded, are aiming to create a new era of private commercial space travel by bringing down the cost of getting into space. The genius of newspace is to leverage the market economy and entrepeneurial spirit of this country to vastly accelerate the pace of innovation in this industry. Dozens of companies are trying dozens of different approaches. Most will fail, but some may succeed. Musk's approach is more conventional than most. He aims to beat the majors (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin) at their own game by producing conventional boosters that compete directly against existing ones, but undercutting their price. He is betting over $100 million of his own money on it.

How can a new company produce rockets cheaper than the big boys? I think there are several key elements of Musk's strategy:

  1. Hire the best and the brightest engineers away from the majors.

  2. Run a lean operation with a flat structure and a spirit of innovation that empowers these engineers to produce the best products possible with the least overhead.

  3. Start with a clean-sheet design while still leveraging the accumulated experience of the past fifty years.

  4. Optimize the design for lowest price instead of highest performance.

  5. Leverage automation whereever possible to reduce labor costs in the design, manufacture, testing, and operation of the vehicle.

So far SpaceX is doing rather well financially. They haven't put a single payload into orbit (yet!), but they have at least a dozen missions on their launch manifest. They won a COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) contract from NASA worth $278 million that is helping to bankroll their development work, and have so far made all their milestones. The big question, I think, is not whether they will get to orbit successfully, but whether over the long haul they can deliver on their promise of significantly lower launch costs than the majors. Right now, I wouldn't bet against them. Go SpaceX!

[Afternoon update] SpaceX has announced the opening of a five hour launch window at 6:00 pm CDT (4:00 PDT and 7:00 EDT). Webcast will begin 30 minutes before launch.

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